I fell in love with history at Alesia.

Long before the Ides of March, Julius Caesar nearly met his end at the hands of a long-forgotten Gallic leader named Vercingetorix.

The senators of Rome had bid Caesar an enthusiastic, if not very sincere, goodbye -- thrilled to be rid of the brazen upstart who'd become way too popular with the masses.

Since the war of conquest beyond the Alps in Gaul (present-day France) had been such an utter disaster, they'd hoped Caesar would be forgotten there, fail, or die.

Oh, how the senators had underestimated him.

Caesar retrained the demoralized Roman army in Gaul, then led them on a string of astounding victories, earning him a place in history as one the of world's best generals, second only to Alexander the Great.

Even worse, Caesar sent regular dispatches back to Rome glorifying his exploits, thus endearing himself to the masses even more. (And to Latin students who've studied his letters ever since.)

The senators wrung their hands in dismay and fury. It seemed nothing could stop that man.

Enter Vercingetorix.

He'd recognized how Caesar fought only small, individual tribes. If the Gauls could unite and fight as one, Caesar could be crushed.

Vercingetorix unified many disparate tribes under his leadership, amassing an army 140,000 strong. He sent half to block the passes in the Alps, preventing Roman reinforcements. With the others, he came upon Caesar.

Vercingetorix, too, had underestimated the man.

His huge army proved no match for Caesar's 35,000 seasoned, professional troops. He fled to the heavily fortified city of Alesia.

Caesar circled the town with an earthen rampart 11 miles in circumference, 12 feet high -- a crazy but impressive strategy. He'd starve Vercingetorix out.

Nonetheless, at least one messenger made it through the Roman lines to alert the rest of the Gallic army in the Alps.

Caesar responded by building yet another wall, this one facing outward, 13 miles around. But how could he hope to defend nearly 25 miles of concentric fortress walls?

Two armies threatened, one from within, one from without. If they attacked together at the same place along the walls -- as they surely would -- Caesar would have to concentrate his forces there, leaving the rest of his battlements undefended.

The dreaded attack came, and all seemed lost. A mass of Gauls breached the walls down the line, and soon the Romans would face foes on three sides. Their own defense would become their trap, spell their doom.

Then Caesar did what would make him famous: the unexpected.

He split his troops, leading cavalry out from the fortifications to attack the Gallic reinforcements from behind. It was a desperate, brilliant gambit.

When the Gauls outside the walls saw Romans assailing their rear, they mistakenly assumed another Roman army had arrived.

A few panicked and ran. Others, just as undisciplined, joined them. Soon most of the Gallic army fled pell-mell -- ironically, just as they were about to win -- leaving Vercingetorix, and all of Gaul for that matter, at Caesar's mercy.

It was an amazing, almost unbelievable moment in history -- all the more so because it was but one chapter in a long saga that included Caesar crossing the Rubicon, defeating the Senate's army, falling first beneath Cleopatra's devious charms, then beneath the senators' steely knives.

When, almost 2,000 years later, our founding fathers re-created the Roman Republic, they created checks and balances as well -- hoping (perhaps futilely; just whose job is it to declare war?) to prevent another Caesar.

Translating in high school Caesar's rendition of that fateful siege of Alesia -- well, how could I help but fall in love with history?

Today, so many years later, I lament that so few students today learn history, much less fall in love with it. (And that filmmakers rarely consider it.)

History is not just a bunch of great stories, after all. It's a stark, fascinating study of human nature -- vital insurance against our republic falling, just as Rome's once did.

David Ellison teaches fourth grade at Kitayama Elementary School in Union City. The Fremont resident's column appears on alternate Mondays on the Local page. Contact him via his blog, ateachersmarks.com.

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